The Curse of Stein.
Stein Erik’s buoyant optimism was sinking fast. We had been grinding along dusty forest tracks in first gear for nearly two hours, the minibus lurching to a gravel-spraying halt whenever anyone thought they saw something vaguely resembling a large animal in the increasingly murky forest clearings on either side. The trip was becoming a tad boring. In the descending late evening gloom, the silhouettes of trees were playing Elk-shaped tricks with our eyes.
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But we hadn’t even spotted a squirrel.
Earlier that evening I had assembled with five or six others in a somewhat nondescript, shop-lined square in Trysil, an otherwise delightful little Norwegian town about 240 km northeast of Oslo. The surrounding pine forests are excellent walking country. What’s more, they are supposed to teem with Elk, those earth-brown critters with antlers like spreading oak trees. They are actually a species of deer. We were going on an Elk safari with The Wildlife Company’s local expert, Stein Erik. And we had set off with a feeling of obvious excitement. We will travel slowly once we are in the forest. We must look for anything large and grey, the size of a small cow, ’ he announced in carefully measured, somewhat hushed phrases, as if we were about to be ushered into the presence of royalty. Now we were excitedly optimistic.
By around 11 p.m. – and in southern Norway in late summer that means it isn’t dark, just very dull – we ground to yet another, rubber-searing halt. One of our eagleeyed, fellow safari punters had spotted a massive, grey backside beating a hasty retreat into the black as coal forest. Stein Erik reckoned it was a five-feet-tall female Elk. We managed a split second grey blur. A little later someone spotted another, the minibus lurched again, and we had a flash view of two more Elk bums, one very large, the other small. Apparently a full-grown female with a three-foot youngster. We took Stein Erik’s word for it.
By the end of the trip as we got back to Trysil’s town square, our guide was more downbeat, trying to come up with explanations for why we were the poor sods that were destined to have such pathetic views of these otherwise impressive animals.
Apparently, almost all other such safaris get stupendous views. I suppose he was bothered that for 200 Kroner (£17) a person, three fast moving bums wasn’t much of a memory to return home with. He was dead right.
Elk avoided us for the whole week in southern Norway, much of it spent within or close to forest. In fact, it’s not easy to avoid being in or close to forest in most of Norway. It was one of those frustrating trips when what you assume will be one of the most common and instantly recognisable animals Scandinavia can offer suddenly goes shy. The country supposedly has at least 120, 000 Elk. You might have thought that just one of them could have put in a decent appearance for my week, but no. And this in spite of several evenings spent sitting around on forest tracks in places where the locals in Trysil reckoned we would definitely see them when they came out of the forest at night to graze. We had walked past heaps of their rich brown, rugby ballshaped droppings the size of ten-pence pieces on forest paths. But no Elk.
There were compensations though. One evening, a couple more hours of sitting and standing quietly in the cover of a group of trees did provide a superb close-up view of one of the most attractive owls in Europe; the Northern Hawk Owl is mainly a daytime owl with a longish tail and a dark brown -virtually black -striped appearance on white plumage. This one landed just above us on an exposed branch of a pine and gave us an occasional downward glance with its bright yellow eyes. In flight especially, Hawk Owls look more like Sparrowhawks than owls, hence its name.
Compensation, too, came in the shape of European Beavers. In Ljordalen, a tiny agglomeration of wooden houses, farms and a couple of general stores which passes muster for a village about 40 km east of Trysil near the Swedish border, the Ljora River has a good population of beavers. Apparently, so did most rivers around here. My wife and I hired a dark green (nicely camouflaged), two-seater canoe from Norvald Doksrud, an incredibly helpful and informative local builder. There were always beavers on the river he told us and the best time to see them was in the evening. We put our mammal-searching trust in him and hoped that he didn’t have the curse of Stein Erik upon him.
So, sprayed copiously with insect repellent, an essential summer evening precaution in Scandinavian forests, we set off with a push and a wave into the sluggish but crystal clear water. We glided downstream on the imperceptible current, hardly using our paddles except to guide us a touch left or right away from the riverbanks. It was an almost dreamlike experience under a cloudless, evening-blue sky, upside-down trees in their perfect leafy detail reflected in the cool stillness of the water’s surface. An occasional silver-grey fish noisily broke through the reflection of a tree, sending out a little circle of ripples and momentarily destroying the surreal image that mesmerised us.
Regimentally spaced flotillas of grey-brown female Goldeneye Ducks with their entourage of bobbing, brown, down-covered ducklings swam ahead of us, the elegant males black and white with their large green heads and white beak spot, the females greyer with a chestnut head. They would have raised their ducklings in holes high up in the old boles of bankside trees, holes often chopped out and vacated by breeding Black Woodpeckers. And when the chicks are ready to leave their nest-hole – just a few days old – they flutter down to the ground like trainee parachutists, hoping to land safely, shake themselves off and waddle into the water where they are safer from predators than they are on land.